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How to succeed as an IT leader in the digital age?

Peter Vollmer, Solution Architect & Agile Evangelist, Micro Focus

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What does it mean to be successful as an IT leader? As technology has evolved, so have the skills needed to lead. As this article will explain in more detail, a generative organisational culture has never been more important.

Times of disruption and change

According to Carlota Perez, in her book, Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital, every 50-60 years we face a paradigm shift that affects the social, business, and economic order.

It starts with an installation period. New technologies and financial capital start to build momentum, which, after a few years, leads to a turning point where companies either adapt or decline. Then follows the deployment period. Technology giants take over the old economy or manifest. According to this philosophy, we are currently at the end of the turning point or already in the deployment period depending on the technology.

These are critical points in time for businesses. Paradigm shifts up end what is required and expected to be successful. Companies and leaders who don’t understand this invariably lose relevance in the upcoming age.

Westrum’s Organisational Culture Model

Where workers were once seen as a “cogwheel in a machine” – easily interchangeable, doing repeating, easily learnable work steps – in the Digital Age, collaboration and an individual’s contribution and cohesion to the larger unit is vital. Successful teams act more like an adapting organism, using the collective brain power to handle ever more complex solutions and changing demands in less predictable environments.

To create and maintain a highly motivated, skilled, and engaged workforce that can master these challenges, we demands a new leadership style and a culture that supports faster learning and information flow. According to research by Dr Ronald Westrum, there are three different types of organisational cultures; pathological, bureaucratic and generative. Each of these cultures has a different impact on informational flow. The generative culture is performance-oriented culture, where responsibilities are shared and collaboration is encouraged – theoretically, this culture is the most conducive to leadership success in the current digital age.

The model suggests that culture is therefore a primary factor for the success or failure of an organisation. It defines how fast an organisation can sense market changes and how quickly it can react to them. It requires a culture that is continuously improving the information flow within and across the company’s value streams. In other words, business agility can only thrive on a generative culture, which is why this style of leadership of so essential.

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Behaviours to support a generative culture

The “New Leadership Playbook for the Digital Age” report describes different leadership behaviours. The analysis is another way to describe the move from a Tayloristic world into the digital age and the change in the leadership paradigm.

Behaviours that hinder the generative culture are what we refer to as ‘eroding’ and include behaviours such as top-down management, micromanagement, avoiding transparency and a one-size-fits-all approach. Conversely, what we refer to as ‘enduring’ and ‘emerging’ behaviours are the attributes that are required to succeed as a leader in the digital age. These include behaviours such as taking risks and leading change for enduring behaviours. While nurturing passion, showing humility and demonstrating empathy are examples of emerging behaviours.

Personal mastery as the foundation of leadership

Albert Einstein famously said, “Setting an example is not the main means of influencing others, it is the only means.” Given the politically and socially charged times we’re currently living in, the ramifications of this quote could not be more appropriate across businesses and organisations from both the public and private sectors. Personal mastery is the foundation of leadership excellence and leadership excellence is the foundation of a successful organisational transformation.

Acquiring new work skills isn’t enough; if you’re not growing as a human being, your performance will suffer.  That is why we must start with personal mastery. Peter Senge defines personal mastery as “living our lives in the service of our highest aspirations”.  This can be achieved by being the best possible and authentic version of ourselves by constant learning and development and continually clarifying and deepening our personal vision and mission.

The Stimulus Response model

Our relations and collaboration are often based on unconscious behaviour. Instead of building trust and motivating others, we unintentionally achieve the opposite. As a consequence, we fail to build the desired generative culture to thrive in the digital age. The reason for that is that we run most of the time on autopilot, as described by the 2006 Nobel Prize winner for economics, Daniel Kahneman. Our brain always tries to save energy. To get out of this, we must shift more of our acting into the conscious mind and learn and internalize positive patterns. Victor Frankl coined the famous quote: “Between stimulus and response, man has the freedom to choose.” And Steven R. Covey explains this freedom by consciously using your self-awareness, imagination and conscience to respond in a positive and intentional manner. To become a better leader (and a better person,) we must break this automatism. If we want to be the best version of ourselves and help others to grow and be motivated, we must constantly improve our ability to respond according to our intentions.

In order to stay relevant in the current digital age, it’s crucial that IT leaders understand the concept of the different organisational cultures and the importance of fostering a generative one. As well as the impact of different leadership styles on this culture, individual employee performance and the overall success of an organisation.


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